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Belfast Child Chapter One- Mum & Dad

My father John was born in 1944 and was the first of five sons and one daughter born to my grandparents, John and Suzy Chambers, who were both hard core loyalists from the Sandy Row area of Belfast. Dad’s early years were typical of working class Protestants of the time, high unemployment and poverty dominated the area he lived in and home was in a council house in the heartlands of protestant West Belfast among other hard core loyalists. Granda was lucky and like other protestant men from the area worked in the shipyard, which at the time was controlled by protestant unions and blatant in its discrimination against employing Catholics. To the Catholic population of Northern Ireland the shipyard was a symbol of unionist control and a constant reminder that they were treated as second-class citizens in a Unionist run state. Being the oldest dad held a special place in both my grandparents hearts and like his siblings he was brought up to practice and respect the protestant culture and traditions which controlled all aspects of their daily lives. Everything was going well until he met and fell in love with my Mother Sally, a Catholic from the heartlands of republican Belfast.

My mother was a Catholic from a hard core republican family from the Falls Road area of Belfast and when her and my father got together both families opposed the relationship from the start. My grandfather disowned my father and both he and mum were ostracised for daring to cross the religious divide. Although tension and paranoia between the two communities was mounting, at this time mixed marriages did take place but were always controversial and scorned upon by both communities. Centuries of conflict between the two religions had left scars on both sides and it was always expected that when you got married, you would marry someone from your own religion. It was a marriage doomed from the start and although mum and dad tried their hardest to make it work, it was impossible for them to escape the sectarian conflict raging around them.

I was born on the 16th July 1966 and the first three years of my life were spent living in the Grosvenor Road area in the west of the city which was one of the few areas of Belfast were Catholics and Protestants could live side by side in relative harmony. Sadly this was to change within the coming years as the beginning of the modern troubles signalled all out war between the two communities of Northern Ireland and Belfast faced the biggest population shift since the Second World War. Relationships between the two communities of Northern Ireland had reached boiling point and within three years the Troubles reached a point of no return.

I was the third of four children and the first boy. My sister Margaret was born shortly after my parents married in 1962. David the youngest was born in September 1968. In the early days mum and dad tried to shield us from the hatred that surrounded us and in an effort to bridge the gap gave Margaret and David Catholic names. In the tribal world of Belfast names signified which religious group you came from and my Grandfather was outraged that two of his grandchildren were given Catholic names. Hostilities continued between the two families and although my grandparents loved us, they could never accept that we had a Catholic mother. Dad’s brothers were all ultra loyalist’s and there were attacks on my mother’s family, which made it impossible for mum and dad to disassociate them from the sectarian conflict surrounding them.

As if mum and dad didn’t have enough problems it was discovered when I was eighteen months old that I had osteomyelitis, a bone disease which led to me spending the next two years of my life in hospital undergoing a total of sixteen operations as the doctors fought to save my right leg. Little did I know at the time that I was to spend the rest of my life in and out of hospital having various operations on my leg and a host of other medical problems. 

The first five years of my life I spent more time in hospital than at home with the family and was shielded from the violent events that would ultimately lead to the break-up of my parents marriage and our family. My earliest memories are of me at about three in hospital, surrounded by other children, doctors and nurses. When I first went into hospital I missed my family terribly and cried myself to sleep feeling very sorry for myself. But as time went on and I realized that I hadn’t been abandoned and mum, dad and other members of the family came to see me almost every day, I began to adapt to my life in the children’s ward. Due to the nature of my disease I had to constantly have plaster of Paris on both my legs and was unable to walk and was confined to my bed unless one of the nurses lifted me up and placed me on a chair or on the floor where I could play with the other children and crawl around until my heart was content. If I was really lucky I would be placed in this little four-wheeled cart and I would push myself around the ward for hours, getting myself into as much mischief as possible.

One day a new student nurse called Brown came to work on the ward and I immediately fell in love with her and decided she could be my foster mother in hospital. I was spending so much time away from my own mother and family that I became confused and cried more when Nurse Brown left the ward at the end of her shift, than I did when my own mother left after visiting me. On her days off Nurse Brown would come into the ward, get a wheelchair and take me on long walks in the park and hospital surroundings, feeding the birds and watching the squirrels fight.

Sometimes she would take me to her living quarters and make us both sandwiches and tea. I became so attached to Nurse Brown that when I was occasionally allowed home for the weekend to visit my family I would scream the place down and demand to be allowed to stay in the ward with Nurse Brown. 

Although I was much too young to understand the complexities of my parents marriage I began to sense that something was not right when dad and mum began visiting me separately, with members of their own families in tow. This went on for some time and I gradually learned to accept it as normal.

Then one weekend when I was due to go home for a visit, mum turned up at the hospital early with one of her sisters and bundled me into a waiting taxi. At first I was surprised to find Margaret, Jean and David also in the car, but when mum said we were going on holiday I became excited began asking loads of questions.

“Where are we going? How long are we going for? Where’s dad?

Mum told me that dad would not be coming with us and I thought nothing more of it. Unbeknown to me, dad and mum had finally parted and there was no turning back. The strain of their mixed marriage in the brutal environment of West Belfast had become too much for them to cope with and led to various arguments and the eventual end of their marriage.

Mum took us straight to the airport and the five of us boarded a plane for London. Once we were in London a friend of mum’s picked us up from the airport and drove us to a flat in Stockwell. As a child the whole thing very exciting and we were blissfully unaware of the significance of it all. Within a few days dad arrived on the doorstep with his brothers to take us back to Belfast. There was nothing mum could do about it and although we didn’t know it at the time , when we left mum crying after us on the door step that day , it was to be the last time any of us would ever see or have any contact with mum or any of her family again , for the next 25 years.

From that moment onwards mum ceased to exist in our lives and through time we all came to believe she was dead and it was better not to talk about her. We all loved dad hugely and after mum left, he became the centre of our universe and we all worshipped the ground he walked on. Having spent so much time in hospital , I was used to being away from mum and the family and I think this may have eased the pain of a three year old losing his mother. It must have affected my sisters more, because they were older than me and had a longer time to bond with mum. My brother David was only one at the time and has lived his entire life not knowing what it is like to have a mother and share her love.

Life went on and gradually mum became a distant memory of my first three years on earth and before long I had learned to live without her in my life. When we arrived back in Belfast I was brought back to hospital to continue my treatment and dad brought the rest of the children home to begin a new life without mum. I was four at the time and having spent so much time away from mum in hospital, for the first few years after she had gone I hardly missed her presence at all, but this would change through time. Beside’s I had Nurse Brown and all my adopted family in the hospital to keep me company. I used to pretend mum was still at home with the rest of the family and was too busy to visit me. But as I grew older the pain of not having her in my life tore me apart and I missed her terribly.

About John Chambers

Profile photo of John Chambers
John Chambers is from Belfast , but now lives in the North West of England. He is the author of Belfast Child, which is about his life growing up within the heartlands of Loyalist West Belfast and his life long search for my missing Catholic mother. He also blogs and posts articles mainly on Current Affairs, War & History and posts daily on key events in the Troubles and Deaths due to the conflict in N.I. You can follow him at https://belfastchildis.wordpress.com/

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